What's next for Leif Bjaland--and the Sarasota Orchestra?

By Megan McDonald February 16, 2011


Beloved Sarasota Orchestra conductor Leif Bjaland departs next season after 15 years.

Since the news broke about Leif Bjaland’s impending departure from the Sarasota Orchestra,  the predominant reaction has been dismay at the loss, but gratitude for his immense contributions to the orchestra and the arts community.

However, a few people are puzzled why Bjaland would leave the orchestra without a firm job commitment elsewhere.

Bjaland, the orchestra’s artistic director and conductor since 1997, announced on Monday that next season will be his last with the organization. “I have learned that personal growth often requires one to make changes, and this belief has prompted me to embrace a new chapter in my life,” Bjaland said in a letter to symphony subscribers.

But if he has any concrete plans or job offers, he didn’t disclose them in the letter, and he has not returned journalists’ calls since his announcement.

Bjaland is one of five finalists for the conducting job at the Colorado Springs Orchestra, which has a smaller budget and scope than the Sarasota Orchestra. But that search process won’t be concluded for months. And in an interview with Sarasota Magazine in January, Bjaland said that were he to get the Colorado job, he might explore leading both orchestras simultaneously. That’s not an uncommon occurrence in the orchestra world. During his time in Sarasota, Bjaland has also conducted the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut.

In that earlier interview, Bjaland said he still found his Sarasota position fulfilling, and was excited about the orchestra’s potential for even greater achievement.

But Marsha Panuce, the orchestra’s board chair, says Bjaland’s desire for change eventually made him decide to switch course.

“Leif embraces change. He would talk to me about it all the time in various contexts,” she says. “It was clear to me as long as a year ago that he has some different interests, that he wanted to try some new things, to explore his creativity even more. So when someone has such a creative edge and wants to take his life in a new direction, you just can’t stand in his way.”

She said Bjaland leaves an incredible legacy. “When he took over, we were barely a blip on the musical map, and now we are one of the finest regional orchestras in the country, in my opinion.”

Relations between Bjaland and CEO Joseph McKenna, who recently signed a new three-year contract, have not always been smooth, but insiders tell me their relationship had improved of late. Asked whether the board was prepared to offer Bjaland a new contract if he had not announced his decision, Panuce says, “I wouldn’t comment on that, because that situation didn’t arise. We can only take things one step at a time.”

When he took the job in 1997, Bjaland built on the solid foundation of longtime conductor Paul Wolfe and took the orchestra in new and exciting directions. He was a charismatic figure on the podium, and was skilled at demystifying the concert experience by making witty and incisive comments before certain pieces. In recent years, he was able to shake up the concert experience with hugely successful Journeys to Genius concerts that incorporated video and spoken word elements.

“He’s built a very fine regional orchestra, a young and dynamic one,” says Sarasota Herald-Tribune music critic Richard Storm. “We will always be in his debt for that.”

“I think he is the best of all of us artistic directors in the area when it comes to his vision and his willingness to collaborate and share ideas,” says Sarasota Ballet artistic director Iain Webb. “Leif was always there when you needed a shoulder to cry on. He will be sorely missed.”

Bjaland is extremely popular with audiences, and is still held in high regard by most members of the orchestra, says principal violist Yuri Vasilaki.

“He has grown as the orchestra has grown, so how could you not respect him?” Vasilaki says. “I admire him so much. He has built strong relationships between the orchestra and the community, and the orchestra and the board. As for his conducting, he’s been great about giving you the big picture in rehearsals, but also allowing for a lot of give and take. He’s the most collaborative conductor I’ve worked for.

“I have the utmost respect for Leif, and working with him has been such a rewarding experience. So I’m feeling, well, not depressed, but certainly pensive and unsettled.”

Still, 15 years is a long run at one institution for any conductor. “When he accepted the job, I figured we’d be lucky to have him here for five years, because he was so talented,” says former board member Robert Kimbrough, who was on the search committee that recommended Bjaland. “So while I’m sorry he’s leaving, we were fortunate to have had him for so long.”

A search committee will be formed soon to find Bjaland’s successor. He will conduct some Masterworks concerts next season, sharing the podium with a number of guest conductors.

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